Mr Jarvis Branson Cocker zooms into view on my laptop, lockdown-shaggy like the rest of us, live and direct from Paris.
He’s escaped isolation in the Peak District, where he bunkered with his girlfriend in a countryside cottage midway between Sheffield and Manchester, travelling to France
to test his eyesight see his son. Albert, 17, lives in the city with his mum, Cocker’s ex‑, stylist (and onetime Face contributor) Camille Bidault-Waddington.
Except he doesn’t zoom into view. The musician is keeping his camera switched off. Why’s that?
“Because you spend the whole time looking at yourself and thinking of what you look like,” comes the disembodied but instantly recognisable voice of the 56-year-old former Pulp man, “instead of listening to what somebody’s saying to you, and having a conversation.”
Fair play. And if anyone can have a conversation, it’s one of our great lyricists, observers, thinkers and raconteurs. You’d be surprised at how few musicians, even “Britpop survivors” with a few pop-miles under their belt, know how to do that.
Maybe you wouldn’t be surprised.
We’re talking on 11th June, when all-but-essential travel is still discouraged and only a
chancing Tory bastard dad with very good reason to see the kid he hasn’t seen in months would journey further than the local shops.
“I wasn’t petrified about getting on the Eurostar but I was wondering what that was going to be like,” admits Jarvis (feels much more natural to call this time-served pop-star-next-door by his first name, right?).
It was BYOB (bring yer own brunch) on the train to London and then onwards to Paris, so Jarvis made sandwiches. Then he filled out the mandatory form.
“I was going there because I had to look after a child, so you tick that box,” he continues in those methodical but lyrical Sheffield tones familiar from BBC radio 6 Music and classic songs galore. Take your pick from his brilliant work in Pulp, as a solo artist, a member of art-horror-sex-comedy combo Relaxed Muscle, the singer in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’s Yule Ball wizarding rock band The Weird Sisters – or now, from new band Jarv Is…, to give them their proper, ellipsis-rockin’ name.
“You have to wear a mask as soon as you go in the station, then on the train I had this whole set of four seats to myself. I guess the train was about a fifth as full as it normally would be. You have to keep your mask on the whole time, and the staff would be walking up and down the corridor, making sure you obeyed that rule.”
Once he arrived at his destination (remember those?) in another country (ditto), Jarvis was instantly struck by how differently, and how much earlier, they were doing things outside Failing Fortress Britain.
“It was blazing hot and what I didn’t know was that particular day, a Tuesday, was the day when they allowed all the cafés to reopen. It was a really weird experience. I walked out of the train station and there were people drinking coffees outside.”
Revolution was afire on the streets of Paris once more. Sounds like Les Mis, with face masks instead of, well, early 19th century face masks.
“I thought: ‘What the fuck? Was it a lie? Did it really happen?’ It just seemed back to normal. And I’d say that now on the streets of Paris maybe a third of people are wearing masks, and every shop is open. People will put a mask on to go in the shops and, from what I understand, it’s working. So far the R rate doesn’t seem to have gone up.”
Thankfully, this month, our (cough) Jarv rate is, finally, going up, with the delayed release of the debut album from Jarv Is…, titled Beyond The Pale. It’s seven tracks of polemical, poetic, funny, lush, occasionally grungy, occasionally, well, French-sounding synth-rock, beautifully tricked out by a crack five-piece band featuring harp, violin and “electronic treatments”.
The backing tracks were recorded mostly live, at shows at Peak Cavern cave in Derbyshire in April 2018, the October 2018 Desert Daze festival in California and Primavera in Barcelona in May 2019. As the accompanying press notes declare: “Jarv Is… an ongoing live experience because life is an ongoing live experience.”
Underlining that irony was the release, very early in lockdown, of the single House Music All Night Long. The best and most eerily prescient lyric: “Saturday night cabin fever in house nation /This is one nation nature a roof.” The best, funniest and most Jarvis lyric: “Goddam this claustrophobia, ’cause I should be disrobin’ ya.” The smartest reference: to Everybody In The Place, artist Jeremy Deller’s magnificent 2019 BBC documentary on rave culture.
Elsewhere Jarvis channels his best Yorkshire Leonard Cohen on opening eco-anthem Save The Whale. MUST I EVOLVE? (capitals very much on purpose) is nigh-on seven minutes of agit-prog. Sometimes I Am Pharoah, which he’s described as “a song about tourism from the perspective of a human statue” (and has been performed live with one of said statues onstage), is epic psych-funk that is both clamorous and wiggy. Swanky Modes, named after a ’90s clothes shop in pre-Britpop Camden, is a classic storytelling Cocker composition, burnishing Jarvis’s reputation as the nearest pop music has to master micro-dramatist Alan Bennett.
All of which, needless to say, would sound absolutely banging live. As Bennett once said (no doubt): FFS.
Jarvis – you’ve been performing live since 1980 (two years after forming the first incarnation of Pulp at school in Sheffield). Are you already feeling a twinge of nostalgia for the good old days of touring and performing?
Well, yeah. I’ve been thinking about that, because we were supposed to be on tour now, so I’d kind of geared myself up for that. One of the silver linings in this situation, and I think there are some, is a really personal one: the fact that this record was recorded in the way it was, which was in collaboration with an audience. A lot of the basic tracks for the songs were taken from live performances.
It’s a coincidental, random thing, but that’s a method of recording that just isn’t possible at the moment. So I’m glad that we did it in the heat of the moment, whilst you could still do that. Obviously nobody knew that was going to get taken away from us, but I’m glad we took advantage of it while it was around.
There is a prophetic nature to a lot of these songs, whether they’re about confinement, the blooming power of the environment or the trials of travelling and tourism. How strange does that feel to you?
Any artist wants that. That’s your job description, I think. You have to have your antennae up and you have to tune into what’s going on around you in the world. You have to be in the world and be part of it, and try to give utterance to that in some way.
You pointed out House Music All Night Long and how the lyrics seemed to really sum up the experience of being in lockdown. Part of me goes: “Oh yeah, that’s great and it’s part of the zeitgeist.” But then the more sensible human part says: “You shouldn’t get too excited and happy and smug about that because a global pandemic isn’t something to congratulate yourself on being a part of or thinking about.” It’s a serious situation.
Being in the countryside for the main chunk of this lockdown, did you avoid some of the claustrophobia you reference in House Music All Night Long?
I kept thinking that I was very lucky, and I was. There’s a big garden you can walk around and there were lots of sheep. It sounds a bit stupid but the lockdown coincided with the lambing season, so that was really helpful. All you were seeing on the TV was people dying, dying, dying, death, death, death. So to go out, walk through a field and see all these newborn lambs was a fantastic antidote to that. I felt so privileged to have been able to have that experience.
Another example of a covidend: the natural world benefiting from the global slowdown.
Right. Nature jumped into the gap that was left by lack of human activity. Everybody commented on that in a positive way. When you’re surrounded by stories of death, seeing life happen around you, seeing plants growing where they wouldn’t normally be able to grow, birds nesting where they wouldn’t normally be able to nest… That was a really positive thing that people grabbed onto: a sign that it’s not all over. The planet is still [living].
I think that’s going to stay with people. There’s no climate change denial possible because of the fact that nature, suddenly, when it got the opportunity, came centre stage. We weren’t blocking it out anymore. And it happened very quickly, so we obviously have a big effect on the environment.
Apart from glorying in nature, and reading bedtime stories on Instagram (including Break It Down by Lydia Davis, J.D. Salinger’s Teddy and Roald Dahl’s The Enormous Crocodile), how else did you get through the first months of lockdown?
I was doing these domestic discos on Instagram – I think we did seven Saturday nights. With all this negative information slopping around in everybody’s consciousness, one way of finding an antidote is to dance and forget about stuff. Use music as a means of escape, a safety valve to deliver you from your brain that constantly thinks, thinks, thinks. Once you dance, you inhabit your body more and your brain turns off a bit. That can be a merciful release.
I didn’t want to be in a contemplative mood during the lockdown – I wanted something that was going to take me somewhere else. You can think of a real old classic like Nowhere to Run by Martha and The Vandellas. That’s a mid-’60s song but somehow in the height of the pandemic this lyric of “nowhere to run, nowhere to hide” seemed a bit too on the nose.
When you were doing those IG live performances, could you feel the love? I mean: did you sense that your disco-goers were connecting and communing?
Yeah. I was really impressed by the fact people were listening to it all over the world as well. And strange things happened. In the last show a spontaneous discussion of sausage rolls started. I don’t know where that came from.
Have you had any creative ideas in this period that you think could work in the weird world into which we’ll eventually, hopefully, emerge? For example: will you tour differently?
It depends. I don’t think there’s any substitute for being on a stage in front of people that you can actually touch and see properly. There isn’t a digital replacement for that. That’s one of the things that we’ve learned from the lockdown: that human interactions – even tiny little interactions of going into a café and saying hello to somebody – build up during the course of the day.
Again, that could be one of the positive things coming out of this. We have woken up to the fact that the pleasure of being a human is other humans.
So we won’t be seeing a Jarv Is… hologram or VR show anytime soon?
Well, historically speaking, I’ve always been a bit dubious about technology. It took me ages to get a mobile phone. I think [my record label] Rough Trade threatened to drop me! That’s why I had to get one, because they could never get in touch with me.
Which is ironic because, as a musician – or even as a DJ – your ability to connect is a rare and special thing, whether in your lyrics or, particularly, your live performance.
I don’t think it is possible to find something that will beat that because it’s that kind of symbiotic relationship. A song completely changes when you play it in front of an audience. You can work on it and you do the best you can. But [to] really know whether it’s good, or how much it’s going to work, or what it actually really means, you have to play it to other people to find that out.
Concerts and music have always been my way of communicating, really. It’s always been very important to talk to the audience and try and get some back and forth going, because that’s the kind of magical thing about it. You get a bunch of people together who are never going to be in that room together ever again. You can make something happen during that time and it’s completely different.
Speaking of which: Pulp’s classic 1995 Glastonbury headline performance, when you stepped in for the absent-through-injury Stone Roses, was (I’m saying) a stand-out of the BBC’s magnificent Glasto broadcast splurge last month. As the self-described “lanky get” leading from the front on the Pyramid Stage, what are your memories?
I’d been to Glastonbury before – I went as a punter in the mid-’80s and hated it. It rained and I’d split up with my girlfriend, so I had a miserable time. I didn’t like all that queuing for ages to brush your teeth and stuff like that. So I just thought: festivals aren’t for me. And we weren’t supposed to play – [Roses’ guitarist] John Squire broke his shoulder only a fortnight before the festival.
I was petrified about playing because it was by far the biggest show we’d ever done. I didn’t know this until the other week, but apparently Common People came out on 22nd May 1995. So it had only been a hit, I don’t know, maybe two weeks before?
So this new world of being popular was very, very new to us. It was a massive leap. We’d played at Glastonbury the year before and we were on at two in the afternoon or something. And suddenly we’re on the Pyramid Stage, headlining on Saturday night. There was a lot of nervousness about whether we could actually do that, whether we could actually rise to the challenge. So when we went on I was shitting myself.
But people do remember that performance, and I don’t think I’ll ever do as significant a live performance ever, probably, in terms of how it changed the trajectory of my life. It just made it clear to me that we were in a different world after that.
And that’s 25 years ago.
Blimey, that’s a long time ago. I’m kind of horrified that it’s a quarter of a century ago. I have no real memory of the whole of the concert. The only bit I remember is when we played Common People at the end and the audience sang along really loudly. That was the first time that had ever really happened. But the rest of the concert is just a blank for me.
I find that often. It’s like what we were talking about with dancing earlier: the best concerts, you don’t really remember anything about them because it’s almost like you get into that idea of living in the moment. So you’re not actually self-conscious. It’s more like the music is moving through you.
A good concert will seem to last about 10 minutes to me because I’m away somewhere else whilst I’m doing it. It’s not like I’m high or anything. You’re just doing your thing and you’re not thinking about it.
To go back to Beyond The Pale, I wanted to ask about a couple of the songs. Firstly, Swanky Modes. I’d say that song is the closest to the Pulp songwriting lineage, in that there’s a narrative and more scene-setting there.
I’m proud of the lyrics of that song, actually. It really sums up my life just towards the end of being at St Martin’s School of Art in London at the very beginning of the ’90s. I was living in this shared house, a community housing association [place], on Georgiana Street in Camden. The main guy who lived there was a drug dealer, so you can imagine it was an interesting household.
Just up the road from there was the shop Swanky Modes. I never really went in because it only sold women’s clothes, but it seemed interesting.
So the roots of this song date back nearly 30 years?
Yeah. And somehow – and this is one of the interesting mysteries of creation – that whole lyric came out as a fully-formed narrative. These events that had happened so long ago have been somewhere, fermented, and they suddenly popped up to the surface of my consciousness and I wrote it down. Why it chose that time to come to the surface, I don’t know. But I’m glad that it did because that song encapsulates a certain period in my life.
That’s one of the magical things about writing songs, I feel: you get a chance to give your life a narrative. I don’t think that human existence really has a narrative, but we have the capacity to tell stories. We’ve been fascinated with telling stories from the dawn of time. That’s why I’m always quite interested in folk tales because those are stories that you can’t say have any one particular author. They tell you something about what humans want from life.
So I think storytelling is quite fundamental to humans. To be able to do that, to turn that raw material of life into something that kind of means something… Well, I’m happy that I’m able to do it.
Then there’s Children of the Echo. It has this kind of meta line: “I was born in the middle of the second verse.” Could you unpack that idea?
I think everybody’s born in the middle of the second verse, as in: you enter the world and it’s already there. For you it’s just started, but the world is there already.
When you’re a kid you think it’s always been like this, but it hasn’t. Probably 10 years earlier it was completely different. I was born when TV in every home was a relatively new occurrence. But because I was born then and there was a telly as early as I could remember, that was part of the world. So we’re all kind of born in the middle of the second verse – we’re all born into the middle of something that’s ongoing. And then we try to learn the words and stuff like that.
Again, there’s a Covid-19 connection. I was talking to my son about it. He’s 17, and to have something like this happen at that age is really different to it happening to somebody like me in their mid-fifties. I’ve lived quite a lot of life, so it’s a pain that you can’t go out and stuff like that. But it’s not like for him and his generation, where you’re waiting to live your own life and suddenly you can’t, you’ve got to stay indoors. That must be a really weird form of frustration that I couldn’t really get my head around.
The anger and frustration of the Black Lives Matter protests have roared into life in the weeks prior to us talking. The ripples are widespread, ongoing and fast-paced. Just before we talked, I was reading about a new campaign in your hometown to erect a statue to the Sheffield Female Anti-Slavery Society, reportedly the first group in the country to campaign for the immediate abolition of slavery.
I feel terrible – I’m from Sheffield but I wasn’t aware of that. But I’m proud. That’s great.
What do you think about the toppling or removal of statues of white men – it’s always white men, obviously – with links to slavery, exploitation and racism?
I think good on ’em. Generally speaking, change doesn’t happen unless people demand it and work for it. The people who have benefited from it aren’t going to volunteer to give up the benefits that they’ve reaped. I was thinking about this – there’s not that much difference between people working in factories in Indonesia making T‑shirts that cost 40 pence… It’s almost slavery, isn’t it?
Slavery was an economic decision that had an ideological effect, but it was a cold, hard capitalist decision: how do we make stuff cheaply? Get these people to do it for nothing.
And we’re still operating on a capitalist system which has probably tried to hide its rough corners but still works on the same principle. How do you make money? Make things cheaply. How do you make things cheaply? Get people to work for fuck-all.
You’re an active supporter of Extinction Rebellion. Once the panic and horror of the pandemic abate, will this global crisis – this global pause and moment of reflection – be a shot in the arm for their aims and activism?
I think from what we were talking about earlier, the fact that we saw an instantaneous bounce-back from nature, nobody can deny the fact that human beings are having an effect on the environment. There’s the positive reaction of people being excited – people really wanted to believe that dolphins were now in the canals of Venice! They really wanted it to be true. So, yeah, I think it will benefit them.
When I listen to the seven songs on Beyond The Pale, I hear defiant optimism. What do you hear?
I’ve stopped listening to it now because it’s done, but I hope [that’s there]. My new year’s resolution two years ago was to be more optimistic. A big eye-opener for me was to get out of my own way and not try and control it all and involve other people. That means both the band and the audiences that we play to. To actually be in control of every aspect of something is boring and lessens it. You get better results when you work with other people and when you open things up.
I think that goes across the board. An open society is more interesting than a closed society. As an attitude, the joy in living comes from other people. I know I sound like I’ve been reading some kind of affirmational book, but I really do believe that.
Beyond The Pale (Rough Trade) is out on 17th July. At time of writing Jarv is… back in Britain from France, free from his post-travels quarantine and doing just fine, merci beaucoup